Stage review: Valley High School offers a sweet production in musical 'Willy Wonka'

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How far would I travel to see a musical I'd never seen before? Plenty far -- farther certainly than New Kensington, even including getting lost along the way, which you wouldn't think possible.

But then I discovered "Willy Wonka" is one of those stage musicals you already know, even though you've never seen it, because you've read Roald Dahl's classic book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (1964), or seen one or both of the two popular movie musicals, starring Gene Wilder (1971) and Johnny Depp (2005).

To make Wonkology even more complex, there are several stage versions, and productions often start with one script and borrow elements, including songs, from others, or from the movies or the original book. Last weekend's version at Valley High School was that adapted for the stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald, with music and lyrics by Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film, but with elements of others blended in.

It would take much more of a Wonka scholar than I to unsnarl it all. So I just sat back and had fun, which was served up by the dipperful, heaped with frosting, chocolaty and sugar coated. Valley's "Willy Wonka" also was like good candy in being gone too soon, after just one hour and 45 minutes, intermission included -- which is actually another attraction, come to think of it. Who would want too much of even a good thing, as we've all discovered pigging out on something we love?

However sugary it is, this adaptation plays right to Dahl's strongest suit, which intercuts a juicy children's fable with surprising satirical details and a streak of darkness, even comic sadism, pretty much like the great Grimm fairy tales. You have to love a story where the greedy, obnoxious kids get subjected to various horrible but funny fates, or where Charlie Bucket's Dad works at a toothpick factory and his Grandpa used to be a toothpaste top twister -- or is it the other way around?

One image we all know is that of the four grandparents sharing a single bed, which is one way to give cold and poverty a comic twist. The family's daily gruel is cabbage soup. Charlie doesn't even have the pittance to buy something from the ever-present Candy Man's cart.

Nonetheless, he gets one of the five gold coupons, entering him (along with those horrid kids) in Willy Wonka's contest, ostensibly to win realms of candy but also to inherit the whole chocolaty empire.

You may notice parallels to "The Wizard of Oz." Like Dorothy, Charlie survives adversity to arrive in a magic city, presided over by an eccentric magician, and he has to pass a series of tests. But he doesn't need to go home; instead, he brings his home to live with him in the magic kingdom.

This is a show where -- as someone once said -- you're humming the familiar songs on the way in: "Pure Imagination," "The Candy Man," Think Positive," "Oompa Loompa." The main drawback is the lack of a shebang ending -- it just slows to an end, although there was lots of bounce and bubble in the curtain call.

Among author Dahl's many delicious inventions are some lovingly named candy specialties. Beyond that, his story is a layered parable of life, all about bad parenting and horrible childing (if that's a word). It's a morality play with a series of character tests proving you're never too young to shape up and fly right.

Oh, yes, there's also a flying scene. When asked how they chose "Willy Wonka" as the school production, Valley's director-producer team of Larry Tempo and Brian Krugle admitted (or joked?) that it was because of the flying scenes.

It also must be all the scenic and prop opportunities. Act 1 makes do with some set pieces and a generic city backdrop, but Act 2 pulls out all the corks and lets the icing flow, to mix the metaphor as does this cornucopia of brightly colored constructions. No designer is listed in the program, but they were all home crafted, with Mr. Tempo as the visionary behind it all. It was all I could do not to snatch a prop cupcake off the trays that were paraded around the lobby after the show, they looked so scrumptious. The same goes for the costumes, also homemade. Valley has a super staff of Costume Moms.

Nathan Traini was an earnest, likable Charlie, and Cody Petit an ebullient Grandpa Joe. A little of that zest would have helped Erik Beck's Willy Wonka. All the horrid contestants were fine, along with their parents (so you understand how the children got that way), especially the world class whiner (a pint pot dominatrix in the making) of Kylee Danko's Veruca Salt. Lauren Ortego had great presence and a funny accent as Mrs. Gloop.

One of the best voices belonged to Allison Wolfe as Mrs. Bucket, who sang all too little. For once, the press is portrayed as sympathetic by Quentin Gatto's Phineous Trout. The dozen Oompas were very cute, along with gaggles of cooks and squirrels. What dancing there was -- not much -- was choreographed by Bryanna Kiselauskas, a former Valley student, and the orchestra of 11, all adult with one student, was led by Joe Melnick.

In one way, this was not the show for a chocoholic like me -- I stopped on the way home to indulge myself and got lost again -- but in another sense, it certainly was.

For a dozen Kelly Critic reviews written by high school students and a schedule of Western Pennsylvania's high school musicals, go to and scroll down to High School Musicals.

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Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: First Published April 26, 2012 7:30 PM


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